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SALT LAKE CITY — For nearly three decades after her adult daughter vanished, JoAnn Ellsworth reminded her surviving children of a lesson she had learned as a teenager.
“A grave is a luxury,” she told them.
Ellsworth, an orphan from age 17, had made a ritual of visiting her parents’ burial sites. Before her death three years ago at age 83, the Payson mother had no such opportunity to mourn Peggy Sue Case, last seen alive with her boyfriend, Michael Ignatius Kufrin.
“A day didn’t go by that she didn’t wonder what happened,” Case’s sister Christine Riley said Friday.
In May 2017, a man living in the Spanish Fork home Case had long ago shared with her boyfriend was digging in the backyard when he discovered a skull and other remains about a foot and a half below the surface. They were later confirmed as those of Case.
Her family now is another step closer toward healing.
The 62-year-old Kufrin, formally charged with murder after the discovery of the remains, has been declared competent in the criminal case.
The Monday finding from 4th District Judge Kraig Powell comes after separate evaluations from doctors. It means Kufrin can sufficiently understand the criminal case against him and work with his attorney.
Kufrin fired his previous lawyer. His new attorney, Matthew Morrise, declined comment except to say he has just received the case and his client has not yet had a preliminary hearing, which is meant to determine if the evidence is strong enough to advance to trial.
Case’s family has attended every court date, remembering her as thoughtful, with an artistic flair. She used used to write them notes with doodles, including one that said “Love you all, Peggy Sue,” featuring a drawing of a palm tree under a giant moon, Riley said.
At the time of her memorial two years ago, her family had the note duplicated and enlarged on canvas.
While the criminal case has caused stress for the family, “I think we are long past ever being consumed with hate,” Riley said. Instead, Riley has found her own feelings toward Kufrin are mostly sadness “that his life had not gone well since that point, either.”
Kufrin has been jailed in Utah County for more than two years. He has not yet entered any plea and could face up to life in the Utah State Prison if convicted.
It would not be his first time there.
Two years after Case was listed as missing, Kufrin, then 34, was in the prison on a conviction of attempted theft after detectives said he stole his boss’ truck and drove to Nevada with firearms.
At an October 1990 parole hearing, he would not answer questions about Case from members of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole.
”I don’t want to talk about it,” Kufrin said. He was released from prison five years later.
The 28-year-old Case was last seen leaving a party in Payson with Kufrin on July 9, 1988.
Friends reported that Case left the party with Kufrin, telling detectives Kufrin was upset with her and accused her of flirting with other men that night.
Three days later, a co-worker called police to report that Case hadn’t shown up for her job at the explosives company Trojan Powder. On Sept. 3, 1988, officers obtained a search warrant and went through Case’s and Kufrin’s house, including the cellar, yard and crawl space under the house with a police dog, detectives said. It’s not clear why her remains were not found, or if they were possibly put there after the search.
Then in 2017, the tenant of the Spanish Fork home found bones under a detached concrete cellar in the backyard that were covered in a black tank top and shorts with a teal, yellow and white design, charges say — the same outfit Case had been last seen wearing at the party. An autopsy determined the remains belonged to Case and her death was a homicide.
Kufrin was arrested in Illinois in July 2017 and later extradited to Utah. Jail records list his address as Downers Grove, Illinois.
He is due back in court Jan. 6.